Managing your Latino Workforce, Part II: Learning Spanish

By Dr. Claudio Pasian, Department of Horticulture and Crop Science

The Ohio State University

A greenhouse grower from the South once told me: “If I couldn’t hire Spanish speaking workers, I’d be out of business very fast. In my area that’s the only help I can get”. It seems that only immigrant workers are willing to do many jobs that we Americans will do not do. Most of the comments I have heard regarding Spanish-speaking workers have been very good. However, poor communication skills have frustrated growers with limited Spanish speaking capabilities.

Lack of good communication between workers and their supervisors not only creates inefficiencies but also can be dangerous. Please, keep in mind that language is only part of good communication. Symbols, signs, expectations or behavior — which are all influenced by culture — are an integral part of the communication process.

In this article, I will discuss aspects that deal with the learning of Spanish as well as communication in general of which language is only one aspect.

Should I learn Spanish? Not necessarily. However, if you have to deal with a Spanish speaking workforce, knowing even some rudimentary Spanish can save you many headaches and earn good will.

Is it difficult to learn another language? That depends. Urgency, cultural interest and talent all play a role. For some people, learning languages is relatively easy. If you are like me, you will have to work a little harder than average. Regardless, if you want to, you will learn enough to communicate with your workers. To avoid frustrations, set realistic goals: start by learning a certain number of words and after that try a few verbs, etc. As much as you can, try to make it a fun project.

Is Spanish difficult? Yes and no. If you are a person who likes structured things with clear rules, you will like Spanish. A one letter-one sound system makes reading much easier. Verbs are more difficult than in English. Pronunciation will be a killer at the beginning. For most English speaking people, it’s just as difficult to pronounce the open vowels of Spanish as it is for us nonnatives of English speaking countries to pronounce the English language vowels. Do not despair! Time and effort will take care of the bumps at the beginning of the road.

What is the best way to learn another language? Different people learn in different ways. Find what works for you. Two effortless first steps: if your office is connected to the internet, you can pick a Spanish language radio station and play talk shows (no music) as background throughout the day; you can do the same with CD’s and records of Latin music.  This will allow you develop the ability to distinguish words. Whatever method you choose, be sure to make it fun. Here are some suggestions: take a conversational class; travel to a Spanish speaking country; tapes (bookstore or library); find a tutor (Can it be one of your employees?); TV; make your own tape; get to know your Spanish-speaking employees.

Are there different types of Spanish? Yes, just like New York English and Mississippi English are different from Australian English. These national and regional differences should not be a problem if you learn basic, standard Spanish. Standard Spanish is identical from country to country so everyone can communicate using this form of the language. It is estimated that less than 10% of Spanish may be different from country to country. The only problems encountered may be if slang is used or when people have a heavy accent. Do you have problems understanding someone from New Zealand or England? In my opinion, most of the differences between the Spanish from different regions are at the same level as those from different English speaking countries.

Resources. In addition to the traditional Spanish teaching tools available in bookstores or libraries I suggest you get some of the following:

  • Spanish in the Field. Practical Spanish for Ranchers, Farmers, or Vintners. By C. P. Clough, J.C. Comegys, and J.K.M. Saddler. agAccess Davis, CA. 1990.
  • Ball Floriculture Dictionary. y V. Hoyosde Martens and M.L. NydiaPalma de Villareal Ball Publishing, Batavia Illinois, 1995
  • Thomson’s English/Spanish Illustrated Agricultural Dictionary. By Robert P. Rice, Jr. 1993.
  • WPS video in Spanish. EPA approved and prepared by MSU.
  • Spanish for Greenhouse Supervisors. Claudio Pasian. Ohio State University Extension Publication and CD.

This last one is a collection of word and phrases both in English and Spanish strictly dealing with floriculture terminology. It is sold out at present, but if you need it, please get in touch with me (

Electronic Dictionaries and Technology. This “artificial intelligence” translation, whether by electronic device or internet, cannot convey subtleties of language and only occasionally work by translating word for word (literal). Beware! It is commonly said, “The translator is a traitor”…

Emergency Translations. Some companies offer on-the-phone translation services through bilingual English-Spanish speaking telephone operators. This service is frequently used by hospitals and other public agencies that provide emergency response. The cost varies according to the company.

Communication. Finally, keep in mind that “Communication is a process by which information is exchanged between individuals through a common system of symbols, signs, or behavior”. In other words, how we say something may be as important as the words we use to say it, and this is influenced by culture.